the peace, unity and purity of the church

Officers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) take vows at the time of their ordination and/or installation to office. There are eight questions that every person – Ruling and Teaching Elder – must answer. One of the questions asked is,

Do you promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church?

Because we are prone to lapse into varying forms of legalism, this vow can create the greatest issues for leaders. How do we promote peace within the church if we believe the purity of the church is at stake? How can the church be united when sisters and brothers disagree about what it means to be pure? Too often we believe that we must choose peace or unity or purity.

Last week one of our congregation chose “purity” or at least what they perceive is purity. They chose, after engaging in study and prayer, to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over what they define as theological differences regarding essential tenets but are really differences over ordination standards. Regardless, their decision disrupts the peace and unity of our presbytery.

One of the chief criticisms of the temple authorities against Jesus was his failure to preserve the “purity” of the Temple. Had Jesus focused solely on purity, the house of Zaccheus would have been lost. If Jesus had been intent on purity, he would have never come close to the ten lepers and a healing miracle would never have occurred. Similarly, countless women would have been ignored or even rejected by Jesus, if he had insisted on purity.  Had Jesus insisted on “purity” alone, the church I know would not exist and I would be lost.

The Jesus I encounter in the gospels isn’t concerned with purity alone.  He eats with sinners because they need to feel and know that God’s love was inclusive of all rather than exclusive toward some.  The Jesus I know welcomes children, not as object lessons or as a means to secure a majority vote, but as the example of faith that enters the Kingdom of God.  The Jesus I know gave up purity to become as one of us and to bring us peace and unity.  The Jesus I know as my Savior give me peace and unity and instills within me a desire for purity that follows his loving example.

So does our vow to promote the peace, unity and purity of the church require us to dilute our faith, or to deny what we hear God saying to us in Scripture? Certainly not! The Reformed faith extols us to keep our hearts open and our minds sharp so that we can discern the will of God for individuals and the church.  Upholding this vow is hard work but it keeps me connected with others who are working just as hard as I am to keep it.

It saddens me that these leaders chose purity to the exclusion of  peace and unity.  Their choice to disaffiliate with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is short-sighted and troubling.  What troubles me is that one day, in another denomination, these same leaders will be confronted with the issues that will challenge the peace, unity and purity of their new home.  And the cycle will begin once again…

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10 thoughts on “the peace, unity and purity of the church

  1. Indeed. How does the hymn go, “By schisms rent asunder”. Schism is, without doubt, the clear consequence of the unilateral Roman assertion of hermeneutical authority over the Creed in 1054. This set in motion a slow ripple of dissolution over the following centuries resulting in a full riptide from 1519 onward sweeping the faithful further from shore. And yet….by what standard do we claim the Reformation should end with our solemn assemblies and issue in no further unraveling?

    Who is the heretic, who the reformer, who the schismatic and whom the faithful? The answer always privileges the inquirer. I offer this in a charitable spirit as we are facing similar challenges in a Presbytery with a wonderful executive whose charge extends over 95 + congregations in an area of significant geographical diversity and size.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Church's_One_Foundation
    http://www.hymnary.org/text/the_churchs_one_foundation
    http://songsandhymns.org/hymns/detail/the-churchs-one-foundation

  2. Thank you, Mark. I come to tears every time I sing that verse of that great hymn. We live in painful times. Edward: I hope we can navigate this time without resort to raw power. Please, can we not reason together?

    • I agree and I do not wish to use power to navigate this painful time. Despite what some may believe I have sought to have dialogue but encountered closed doors. I still pray for a positive outcome that respects each side. May God help us be open to this possibility.

  3. You are so right Edward. You may not remember me from 1st Pres. Georgetown. My home church in Lubbock left this winter and I am just sick about it. I was a charter member there at age 12. Jim and I helped start San Gabriel, Georgetown – not because we were unhappy, but because we were called. We have about 300 members from every church you can imagine originally. I am sure we don’t all agree at all but we do Christ’s work together with love. I would wish that for all churches. Then maybe we could get on with the real job.

    • Beth
      I do remember you and Jim. I’m saddened to know that you are dealing with a painful situation but I am also happy that you are part of a vibrant congregation in Georgetown.

      • Edward, Westminster had over 200 people who didn’t want to leave the denomination. Presbytery let the building go because it was built in the late 40’s and with additions is very large. It is too expensive for the remnant. I haven’t heard about what they are doing. I am sure there are many suffering people all over the US over this. They will probably reunite in another 75 years. Beth

  4. Wrestling with the balance between peace, unity and purity is important. Probably if no one had ever chosen purity and decided they had an inside track on a theological stance, Paul wouldn’t have needed to write so many letters. Withdrawal over purity, if it is intended to reduce arguing and posturing or removes people from a tension that is leading to sinful behavior, can, however, promote peace. Insistence on staying only to fight or only to retain possessions, in contrast, can be sinful. Unity without peace and purity is similarly out of whack.

    In the Book of Order the ordination question asks the elder to commit to promoting peace, unity and purity in the church. “church” is defined in the Book of Order as a particular congregation not the presbytery. Unfortunately that does open the door for situations where the elders may be fully in keeping with their vows while still not being in alignment with the presbytery. These are uncomfortable places to find ourselves.

    As I read this blog and “A House Divided,” the people involved are described as misleading, untruthful, deceptive, and inarticulate as they cite some reasons but are determined to have meant something else. And, maybe they are. I do not know the players, but I wonder why the presbytery is determined to keep such people if it is true. On the other hand I read that after a time of study and prayer, 73% arrived at the very difficult decision to change denominations. Is that large segment of the congregation deluded or dim? Did they not undergo the study and prayer in good faith? Again, perhaps.

    I ask the next question only in the gentlest of ways because, Edward, I have always known you to be a man of God, but when people are publicly portrayed this way, does it promote the peace, unity or purity of the church? The level of healing required for all to find welcome after such pictures have been painted is very high indeed.

    Take heart, God is in control. God is bigger than the church and bigger than the Presbytery. He has plans to prosper and not to harm us though the journey is currently painful. Even when we cannot see a way for healing at the moment or even in the year, surely it promotes the peace, unity and purity to leave room for reconciliation over time. Often, dying to ourselves in the short run seems difficult but it breaths space for the larger victory of drawing more people to Christ as we ourselves turn to trusting in His provision and relying on His grace.

    • Susan, I am saddened by the events that have led to the actions of this particular congregation. I do not mean to suggest that they are uninformed and I have respect for the struggle that congregations and individuals have in discerning their relationship to a denomination or presbytery. My comment about the peace, unity and purity of the church are directed at the notion that the leaders of this congregation have sought to create a definition of purity to which they would have others subscribe. These leaders have sought to manipulate our process; paralyze those who have sought to engage with them in conversation by filing remedial and disciplinary action against presbytery leadership; and as I learned this week from a representative of the EPC began moving toward that denomination while at the same time vowing to our presbytery that they had not begun talking about departure. There is a significant backstory to this conversation and much pain has been created because these folks have chosen purity without considering its partners – peace and unity.
      Thank you for your comments and your concern. I ask for your prayers.

  5. Oh come on! The “purity of the church” that Jesus was concerned with had nothing to do with whether its Zaccheuses et al. had sullied pasts! Whatever happened to the power of forgiveness? What Jesus spent a good deal of his career contending with the religious authorities over was their appalling THEOLOGICAL (spiritual) impurity, their institutional corruptions of belief, doctrine and religious practice that had left them insensate to Who He Is. It is exactly that purity that is wanting in today’s church, the purity that is very much at one with peace and unity. To believe there is some sort of either/or between these 3 aspects, that in itself shows being out of adjustment with all three. The three are a community of co-inherent complements.

    In fact, the syntax of the three really should be reversed to read Purity, Unity and Peace, because without purity and integrity (i.e., fidelity) in our grasp of the Word, there can be no true Christian unity, and without that pure unity in the Word, there can be no “peace of Christ” for the church. There is no either/or here, there is three-in-one

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